Leafy greens are trendy today because of their fresh appeal and healthful attributes, which include, among others, folic acid, beta-carotene, lutein, fiber, magnesium, iron, potassium and calcium. Whether raw or cooked (as is often the case with mature greens, which become more bitter and fibrous with age), designers have a multitude of greens, as well as varied preparation methods, from which to choose.
Not only popular in American-style tossed salads, iceberg lettuce — the long-standing, worldwide king of leafy greens despite being lower in nutrition than its greener competitors — tops Mexican tacos and wraps Vietnamese grilled meats. Mesclun, a mixture of colorful, bitter, sweet and peppery young leaves, is an upstart challenger to lettuce in the United States. With origins in France, mesclun contains mache, baby lettuce (red, oak leaf and romaine), mustard greens, curly endive, radicchio, dandelion, spinach, chard and/or arugula. Many U.S. southerners dine on collard, mustard and turnip greens, whether simmered, braised or stirred into soups and stews.
Chicory, radicchio, purslane (a weed with Asian origin) and endive, staples of ancient Egyptians and Romans, are flavored (eaten raw or cooked) with sweet red bell peppers, ham, garlic and olive oil. Sorrel, a medieval European favorite, provides tartness to soups, omelets, purees and sauces for meats and fish. Chefs prepare Swiss chard with olive oil, pine nuts and raisins, or add it to tagines with spices. Watercress is made into purees and soups or garnishes French meals.
With the increasing Asian demographics in the United States, more exotic greens from the Far East are now available to U.S consumers. These greens fare well in steaming or stir-frying, or pickling by using garlic, ginger, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, chiles or salted seafood to flavor the greens. Asian chefs pickle Oriental mustard greens (gai choy), braise them with fermented black beans and pork, or boil them with soy sauce. Chinese broccoli, or kale, (kai lan), yow choy (flowering rape) and Chinese cabbage are cooked or pickled. Bok choy (Chinese white cabbage), choy sam (baby bok choy) and their olive-green versions (pak choy) are popular in stir-fries, noodle dishes and soups. Chefs add napa or Peking cabbage to salads, coleslaws and stir-fries, or use it in Korean kimchi (fermented Chinese cabbage and radishes with other flavorings).
Spinach has traveled the world from Persia to adorn salads, quiches, pastas and pastries. The Cantonese stir-fry water spinach — also called water convolulus, kankong or rau muong — with garlic and fermented beans, and Malaysians stir-fry it with shrimp paste and chiles. Red or green-leaf spinach — called basella, Indian spinach or Chinese spinach — is sautéed with spices, or added to soups.
Callaloo, or bhaji, from taro root leaves, forms the basis of the Caribbean and Brazilian callaloo soup — which is made with these greens, coconut milk, okra, yams and chiles.
Susheela Uhl is president of Horizons Consulting Inc., a Mamaroneck, NY-based food-consulting firm, which develops ethnic, fusion and “new” American products for the U.S. and global markets. Horizons provides market trends, culinary demonstrations and presentations on ethnic foods, spices and seasonings, and technical support. Uhl can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com, or by visiting www.SusheelaConsulting.com.